Pressuring petitioners

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-10-27 22:19:25

A petitioner in Kunming, Yunnan Province, December 2009, draws attention from police and bystanders after dressing up to make her case. Photo: IC

By Zhang Han

While social unrest is believed to be on the rise in recent years in China, the number of petitions presented by ordinary people looking for justice has dropped.

According to the 2009 Human Rights Report released by the State Council Information Office on September 26, the number of petitions nationwide decreased 2.7 percent last year, continuing the trend over the past five years.

Experts said that the data closely reflects reality, according to a report by Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend newspaper, but in areas around Beijing's Southern Railway Station and Supreme People's Court it is still easy to find thousands of men and women trembling in the autumn chill in the dilapidated underpasses, yearning for their grievances to be addressed.

"There are various causes for the decrease, including governments trying all they can to intercept and stop residents from petitioning and some local governments starting to receive petitioners," Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science told the Global Times. "But the decreasing numbers do not mean that social conflicts have been eased."

Petition busters

According to a 2007 research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more than 10,000 petitioners have set up temporary residence in the capital city. They make the rounds of petition offices including the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and others.

Only one out of every 500 petitioners, or 0.2 percent, have their problem actually solved, said Yu in his 2004 report The Deficiency of the Petition System and its Political Consequences.

Other petitioners quit out of frustration and "many petitions are quashed violently before they could arrive in Beijing," Yu told the Global Times.

According to Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly, in order to eliminate petitioners in Beijing in 2007 during the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, more than 5,000 officials from all levels of government in Hebei Province alone came to the capital. The total numbers of officials from all over the country to intercept petitioners in Beijing reached 1 million at the time, Phoenix Weekly reported.

Intercepting petitioners is not only an official's job; it has also become a grown industry. Anyuanding, a Beijing-based private security company, made 21 million yuan ($3.16 million) in 2008 through cajoling, threats of extortion, beatings and torture ordered by government officials, according to the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolitan Weekly.

Xu Huiping, a 66-year-old woman from a village in Chongshan district, Nantong, Jiangsu Province began petitioning in March 2009 in Beijing over her demolished house.

But her ordeal began a year before that, her son told the Global Times, when 160 thugs allegedly broke into Xu's house, beat up her family and demolished the home. Following that she petitioned all the way from her district government to Beijing.

Her son, Zhang Yuliang, said when Xu arrived in Beijing the district government began pressuring the family further and in October 2009 forced her son-in-law to divorce her daughter in order to pressure her to return.

Blindfolded and beaten

In March this year, Xu was blindfolded by a group of people in uniforms allegedly employed by Anyuanding. Her son told the Global Times that she was driven back to Nantong where he said she was beaten and kicked. Having spent more than 6,000 yuan ($898) for transportation and accommodations, the only thing the family ultimately received were piles of petition-received receipts - thin yellow papers that demonstrated Xu had made the effort.

"The local government would do anything to stop us from petitioning, at any prices, even human life," said Zhang.

His comment reflected the experiences and evidence of others. According to a diary of an official in the real estate bureau of Changsha, capital of Hunan Province that was released earlier this year after concerned residents in Changsha obtained it, the bureau was to treat petitioners as "hostile forces," to be "sentenced," or "deterred in advance" to "prevent them from petitioning or demonstrating."

Chen Shuwei, a Shenzhen, Guangdong Province resident who petitioned in Beijing in 2006 about what he believed were numerous problematic clauses in the business contract of State-owned telecom giant China Mobile, told the Global Times that he is still constantly harassed by his local government.

During the "rush time" for petitions, such as the National Day, Party meetings and the Spring Festival, the 37-year-old man said he was arrested on four occasions between March 2008 and October 2009 and detained for a total of 57 days in "black hotels" to prevent him from petitioning until the "sensitive periods" ended.


Cost of oppression

"Petitioning serves as one of very few ways of participating in political life in China. It is very hard to say whether fewer people trying to address social problems is better for the society," said Yu.

National expenditures for public security rose 16 percent last year from the year before to 514 billion yuan. The rate is even higher than the rise of the national defense budget, according to Beijing-based China Youth Daily.

And suppressing the expression of problems - such as petitioners - only makes things worse, according to a report on maintaining social stability released last April by scholars from Tsinghua University.

"In recent years, we've seen that governments have invested more and more energy in cracking down on petitioners - including using financial resources and manpower - in efforts to maintain stability. However, the number of social conflicts have instead risen quickly. We seems to have met a dilemma - the more we try to maintain stablity, the less stable the society is becoming," said the report.

Repressing petitions will only leave social problems unresolved and result in riots, Yu said.

For example, tensions have long simmered in the resources-rich county of Weng'an county in Guizhou Province. Various disputes such as demolitions and mining issues had not been solved, with more than 20 serious petition appeals officially ignored.

On June 2008, thousands gathered in front of the local government building to protest the mysterious death of a high school girl. The incident left 104 offices in the building burned, 47 offices of the public security bureau destroyed, along with 22 police cars, 15 motorcycles, including 54 private vehicles and more than 150 people injured.

"The girl's death was the direct cause of the Weng'an incident, but a deeper problem is that social problems that had existed for a long time had not been solved at all," Shi Zongyuan, the Party secretary of Guizhou Province told Xinhua News Agency.

"Intercepting petitions can only solve temporary problems in the society. In the long term, the social conflicts could explode and ... it would be a higher cost for Chinese society," Yu wrote in Phoenix Weekly.

Call for reform

"We wouldn't bother to go all the way to Beijing if there were other choices," Zhang told the Global Times after the family tried to bring the issue to a court. Their case was dismissed because the public security bureau allegedly refused to provide any evidence or testimony, he said.

According to the three latest recommendation documents released last year by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council, all township officials must receive petitioners at any time and all county Party leaders must set aside one day a month to receive petitioners. Central and provincial government leaders are also encouraged to receive petitioners.

"There are some redeeming qualities in the system of receiving petitioners, which has helped solve some local social conflicts," said Shan Guangnai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science. "But in some areas, the system means spending money to buy out petitioners to stop petitioning. In other cases, the government will directly order the court to change its verdict."

Guo Yuhua, a researcher at Tsinghua University said a fair judicial system is the only way to maintain a stable society. "If justice stands on the side of power, the civilians have no way out. Power cannot supervise itself, it requires an external factor, and that is society. We need to attain a positive balance among power, the market and society, and that is a fair and independent court."

The latest development of Xu's case was an online reply by the Party secretary of Chongshan district that was sent in June 2009. "We've received your comment, and will take care of it soon," it said. Xu and her family have heard nothing since.

Xu's son Zhang said he had invited no less than 20 reporters to interview and write about his mother's case, but not a single report had yet been published.

With his mother lying in bed, his sister forcibly divorced, Zhang said he is confused. "What now?" he asked. "Maybe I'll go petition again someday."

Yang Hongke contributed to this story

Posted in: In-Depth

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